It’s fascinating to reflect on the different stories that philosophers have told themselves at different times about our profession’s history. For these stories have never ceased to change.
“He whose mouth is out of taste, says the wine is flat. The healthy man commends its flavour, and the thirsty its briskness. Now, our condition always accommodates things to itself, and transforms them according to its own posture,” Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) commented.
This Montaigne was himself a philosopher who was once the toast of much of early modern Europe.
The opening note to his Essays of 1580 then 1588, an instant best seller, disarmingly claims that the book takes “my self as the object of this book.” “There’s no reason you should employ your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject,” we are accordingly served notice. “Therefore farewell!”
But few listened, and many read.
Montaigne’s scepticism predates and informs the more famous scepticism of Descartes, who still is rated (or hated) as a philosopher today.
Montaigne was adored by Voltaire and the other lumieres in the French enlightenment. Rousseau borrowed from him. “The fact that such a figure has written truly adds to the joy of living on this earth…”, Nietzsche later enthused.
Yet Montaigne has largely disappeared from philosophy syllabuses today. And this almost certainly has alot to do with the present posture of our subject field, just as he would advise.
Does it matter? It is almost certain that he would not worry overmuch.
One component of Montaigne’s persona, like many of his contemporaries’ influential in the burgeoning Northern renaissance, was a deep scepticism about the reigning University philosophy of his day: that of the scholastics.
“Learning is, indeed, a very great and a very material accomplishment,” his longest effort begins. “And those who despise it show their own want of understanding. But learning I do not prize at the excessive rate that some others do.”
Many Greek philosophers had thought that knowledge could make men wise; wisdom virtuous; and virtuous content and happy. Yet Montaigne delights in regaling us with stories of “sages behaving badly”. Here is one renouncing his Stoic principles on grounds of a tooth ache. There is another being reminded of his mortality, and the folly in his subtleties, by a vexatious in-law.
The grand idea that wisdom would lead to perfect inner tranquillity could be simply tested, Montaigne suggests:
“Put a philosopher into a cage of small thin set bars of iron, hang him on the top of the high tower of Notre Dame at Paris. He will see, by manifest reason, that he cannot possibly fall. And yet he will find (unless he has been trained as a plumber) that the sight of the excessive height will frighten and astound him …”
In a storm that beset the boat of the sage Pyrrho (his favourite ancient wise guy), Montaigne delights that it was the philosopher’s pet hog of all the company who reputedly kept his cool.
As for the famous doctrines of the philosophers, plumbing the very pith of things:
“I cannot easily persuade myself that Epicurus, Plato, and Pythagoras, have given us their atom, their Ideas and golden numbers, for current coin. For they were surely too wise to establish their philosophies upon things so disputable and uncertain.”
In order to establish this outlandish claim, Montaigne suggests, all we need do is listen to the cacophony of philosophical voices on any of the great questions: the Gods, the soul, the seat of the soul in the body, and (remember, this is the 1580s), even the nature of spermatozoa. (Plato, for one, thought that it was generated from the marrow of mens’ spine, whence the back pains that can attend upon the act).
In every case, what the ancient sceptics had called “diaphonia”, a “rattle of competing voices” prevails, without any agreement.
Montaigne can take his once-famous scepticism pretty far:
“As Socrates says, in Plato, "That whoever meddles with philosophy may be reproached as Thales was by the woman, that he sees nothing of what is straight in front of him. For every philosopher is ignorant of what his neighbour does; yes, and of what he does himself, … and of who or what they both are …”
There is nothing then that bugs Montaigne so much as what he calls “presumption”, alongside the kinds of cruelty his times saw the French Catholics and Huguenots visiting upon each other in episodes like the infamous Saint Bartholomew’s day massacre.
Like most of the philosophy in the essays, Montaigne’s criticism of this “presumption” brings together longstanding Christian criticisms of the sin of pride, with ideas from the ancient sceptics.
Presumption involves claiming to know more than you do. Montaigne sees it rife everywhere in his times, in ways not unrelated to the troubles of the day:
“It is a greater presumption,” says Plutarch, “in them who are but men to attempt to speak and discourse of the gods and demi-gods than it is in a man utterly ignorant of music to give an opinion of singing; or in a man who never saw a camp to dispute about arms and martial affairs, presuming by some light conjecture to understand the effects of an art he is totally a stranger to …”
Montaigne’s hero, Socrates, is hence given his high marks for claiming only to know how much he did not know, alongside the Pyrrhonians, who claimed to know next to nothing with any certainty.
Far from leading them to chronic anxiety and a complete inability to any longer function in the world, Montaigne instead tells us that this “suspension” of all dogmatic claims:
“… leads them to ataraxia, which is a peaceable condition of life, temperate, and exempt from the agitations we receive by the impression of opinion and knowledge that we think we have of things; whence spring fear, avarice, envy, immoderate desires, ambition, pride, superstition, love of novelty, rebellion, disobedience, obstinacy… nay, and by that the Pyrrhonians are exempt from jealousy …; for they debate after a very gentle manner; they fear no requital in their disputes … and love to be contradicted, to engender doubt and suspense of judgment, which is their goal.”
There are then philosophers and philosophers, for Montaigne.
There are dogmatic philosophers who claim to know it all. Proverbially, they fall down the nearest well. Against these, Montaigne sides with those who see philosophy primarily as a business of inquiry, not certainty; of questions, not answers; of astute observation, not strident declamation; and of playful irony, against the seriousness of sects.
In a phrase Nietzsche echoed, Montaigne sings that “I love a gay and civil wisdom”. Indeed, if we must speak of ‘sophia’ in a trade that takes its very name from her: “The most manifest sign of wisdom is a continual cheerfulness, her state is like that of things in the regions above the moon, always clear and serene …”
His essays thus teem with what we might today call a truly “postmodern” profusion of observations: of smells, of thumbs, of war horses, of “the custom of wearing clothes”, “that we laugh and cry at the same thing” …
And our “accidental philosopher” sounds veritable hymns to difference, reflecting the wonder of Europe’s recent discoveries of the “new world”:
“We see in this world an infinite difference and variety, only by distance of places; neither com, wine, nor any of our animals are to be seen in that new comer of the world discovered by our fathers. It is all there another thing; and in times past, do but consider in how many parts of the world they had no knowledge either of Bacchus (viticulture) or Ceres (agriculture) …”
Montaigne is also one of the first critics of what we today call “Eurocentrism”. He sees much to like in the tales of the American Indians Europeans were returning. He thought Plato, for one, would have been highly impressed by these “cannibals”, and that his European contemporaries could from them learn a thing or two:
“… what we now see in those nations, does not only surpass all the pictures with which the poets have adorned the golden age … So native and so pure a simplicity, as we by experience see in them, could never enter into the ancients’ imagination. … I should tell Plato that it is a nation wherein there is no manner of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no science of numbers, no name of magistrate or political superiority; no use of service, riches or poverty, no contracts, no successions, no dividends, no properties, no employments, but those of leisure, no respect of kindred, but common … The very words that signify lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, detraction, pardon, are never there heard of …”
So “let us not forget” Montaigne, when it comes to thinking about the history of our culture and philosophy’s place within it. For he matters, or else Pyrrho’s hog does, or the two of them together.
Montaigne is worth remembering because he reminds us, in a period wherein absolute dogmatisms of different kinds still turn a lively trade, that there is another side to Western philosophy, going way back, that contests the demand and achievability of all-purpose systems.
He matters because his kind of urbane scepticism turns philosophy back upon itself, and back towards the kinds of questioning, newly humble inquiry that would shortly be enshrined in the burgeoning sciences.
Montaigne also matters because he can remind us that philosophy was not always as it is today, and that it will continue to change tomorrow-as nearly all things we know of do change, in another of the old sceptics’ tropes.
Montaigne matters because, all his acerbic ironies at the expenses of hybristic sages aside, he thinks that philosophy should be one part of a larger, humanistic conception of education: one which can inform students’ lives, as well as filling their brains, or training their skills.
Montaigne still matters finally because, in all of this, like Wittgenstein and a long line of ironists reaching back to his Socratic hero, Montaigne is funny. Sometimes he is hilarious. Always he is wry. And reading him can make us laugh at ourselves:
“The pretty inscription wherewith the Athenians honoured the entry of Pompey into their city is conformable to my sense: "By so much thou art a god, as thou confess yourself a man.” It is an absolute and, as it were, a divine perfection, for a man to know how loyally to enjoy his being. We seek other conditions, by reason we do not understand the use of our own; and go out of ourselves, because we know not how here to reside. And it is no great purpose for us to go about on stilts. For, when upon stilts, we must still walk with our legs. And even when we sit upon the most elevated thrones in the world, we are still seated on our arses.